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Vegetarians Often Unaware That Animal Products Lurk in Many Prescription Pills

Feb. 28, 2012 -- Many vegetarians and vegans strictly avoid animal products because of dietary, medical, cultural, ethical, or religious convictions.

But what they don’t know about their medications may run counter to these beliefs. Many medications use gelatin as part of the manufacturing process. Gelatin is almost universally derived from animals. It does many things for many medications. Gelatin may help form capsule shells, make liquids thicker, and coat drug powder.

Doctors often focus on the medications’ active ingredients when they write prescriptions -- not the coating or other added ingredients. These may include binders/fillers, coating agents, lubricants, and sweeteners.

Researchers polled 500 people who were being treated by a urologist about their dietary preferences, restrictions, and willingness to take medications containing animal products. Previous research has shown that many urology drugs contain gelatin.

Of these, 200 people said they didn’t eat animal products. Most of these people said they would prefer to take medicines containing only vegetable products. Just one in 10 said it didn’t matter.

Among the 176 with a stated preference, more than half said they would take a drug containing an animal product if no other alternative existed, but 43% said they would not knowingly take a medication containing an animal product.

Animal Products in Rx Drugs

Of the study participants, very few said they even thought about asking if their prescription medicines contained animal products.

A first step: Educating doctors and pharmacists to ask people about their dietary preferences may be helpful. “Many health care professionals are unaware that certain patient groups have dietetic preferences, which may mean they may not wish to take gelatin-containing medications, and most patients are unaware of what their oral medication contains,” the study authors conclude.

Urology drugs are likely just the tip of the iceberg. Gelatin is an ingredient in many drugs. The new findings are published in the Postgraduate Medical Journal.

Some solutions may exist, and more are needed, according to the researchers. They include vegetable-based alternatives and clearer labeling, such as the adoption of a vegetarian symbol to be used on medication packaging.

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